EAST LANSING, Mich. — A gift shop in a performing arts center on Michigan State University's campus removed a display of dolls depicting black historical figures hanging from a rack after numerous people complained on social media.
MSU officials became aware of the "inappropriate and insensitive" display in the gift shop of The Wharton Center for Performing Arts last week and immediately removed it, according to a statement from MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant.
It used a rack resembling a tree to hang felt ornaments resembling Michelle Obama, Barack Obama and Prince.
"Regardless of the intent of the display, its impact cannot be ignored — people were hurt and offended," Guerrant wrote. "We sincerely apologize to our community members and have immediately removed the display. Additionally, after the Wharton Center reported the incident, it agreed to provide employees and volunteers with racial bias training that focuses on the impact and understanding of intentional and unintentional racial bias.
"We have work to do, and MSU remains committed to creating a culture that is inclusive and safe for all faculty, staff, students and visitors. As we enter Black History Month, it’s important we not only recognize the many contributions of African Americans, but we remember history and confront all bias."
Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn, a 31-year-old black graduate student at MSU, took in a jazz concert with a friend who wanted to check out the gift shop after the show. The dolls hanging from the tree was one of the first images she noticed when they walked in.
They kept walking around and she spotted four or five similar trees and a larger Christmas tree with "a lot more" black leaders. There were a few white leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln and Beethoven, but the trees were mostly covered with ornaments black historical figures, Davis-Dunn said.
She asked shop workers if they saw anything wrong with the displays, but they didn't, Davis-Dunn said.
"It's African-American people hanging from twine," Davis-Dunn said. "That is problematic. You're lynching black people from trees."
This came after she had spent a day in meetings with university leaders to talk about bringing more equality and diversity to MSU.
"I went to the jazz concert to escape from all of that and unwind," she said.
This is at least the third incident this school year that some black students at MSU called racist and offensive. A black student found what appeared to be a noose fashioned from toilet paper on their dorm room door in October.
A professor's survey with racist and offensive language was taken down in the same month.
"The Black Community is sick and tired of having to see something racist at every turn," Sharron Reed-Davis, president of the Black Student Alliance at MSU, said, in a text message.
"We are tired of having to put on a strong face 24/7, especially at the place we're supposed to call home," she added. "This university is toxic."
The incident happened in a facility named after Clifton R. Wharton, a black man and former Michigan State University president, Reed-Davis said.
The Wharton Center gift shop issue is bigger than "black people hanging from trees," Davis-Dunn said. A lack of sensitivity is embedded in the MSU community.
"Until we start getting at the root of what's there, it's hard for us to move forward," she said. "This is the undoing of 400 years of racial trauma and oppression. The things that happened to people in the fight for equality is not laughable. It doesn't happen very blatantly or very explicitly anymore, but it is institutionalized."
Follow Mark Johnson on Twitter: @ByMarkJohnson.